Federal money helps combat lead poisoning

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Shelby County housing inspector Michael Burnett arrived recently at the home of a 75-year-old great-grandmother, armed with an X-ray fluorescence gun. He was there to test for lead.

Burnett found it, The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/1ml9fKv) reported. Exterior levels varied wildly, from no measurable amounts of lead on the painted floor of a front porch to levels as high as 8.3 on a 9.9-maximum scale on a window casing of the 76-year-old home.

"That's why you can't go by looks," Burnett said, pointing to spots where paint was thicker than others. "This device is the only way to really know if it is and if it isn't lead."

The discovery was important for Barbara Weeden, who babysits her great-grandchildren at the home while their parents work.

The federal government did not outlaw the use of lead in paint until 1978, so any home built before that date could have it.

"Basically, you can't get rid of it. It's just out there," said Scott Walkup, manager of Shelby County's lead hazard control program. "HUD does not fund us to abate all the lead hazards we find or all the lead paint we find."

Decades later, children are still being irreversibly poisoned by lead paint from ingesting the chips or from exposure to tiny particles of dust.

Since the mid-1990s, both the city of Memphis and Shelby County have been awarded grants that total $33 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for lead hazard reduction efforts. Most recently, in September, Memphis received a $3.7 million grant.

The programs help low- to moderate-income homeowners with repairs that address peeling paint or painted surfaces that rub together, creating friction and dust.

The city's program also includes rental properties while the latest grant allows for other "healthy housing" repairs like trip hazards and mold issues, said Marticus Muhammad, lead paint program manager for the city.

In a city where about 70 percent of all housing units were built before 1979, and with the county's children testing at lead-poison levels above the national average, it's a problem that may never go away.

"It's an epidemic in older housing," Muhammad said.

National numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 1.4 percent of children screened have lead in their blood stream, said Betsy Shockley, manager of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department's childhood lead poising prevention and healthy homes program.

"Here in Shelby County, we're running at a 2 percent poisoning rate," Shockley said. "And in some census tracts we're at three or four times the national average. When you put poor housing stock and poverty together you produce hundreds of poisoned kids a year."

Children at all income levels can be exposed to lead paint, but poor children who live in old houses that have not been maintained are the most vulnerable, she said.

Because lead poisoning affects brain development, problems aren't typically seen until a child starts school, Shockley said.

Studies have found that a large percentage of incarcerated men were poisoned by lead as children.

Exposed adults can experience cardiovascular problems, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

For Weeden's home, the final results for the interior, exterior and soil tests will determine how much, if any, repair work will be done to mitigate lead exposure there. She can't wait.

"If it's lead in the house, I want it out," Weeden said.


Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com